Poisoned Flannel


Murderous Mysteries of Manufacturing.

(Correspondence New York World.)
Harrisburg, PA, March 23.

A SUIT is pending in one of the civil courts of this State, growing out of the following facts: During 1869, 1870 and 1871 many paragraphs appeared in the papers in different parts of the country, chronicling cases of poisoning from wearing flannel, usually red flannel. It is since claimed to have been discovered that the diseases so produced were essentially of one type, and never ensued except to person who had been wearing flannel of the manufacture of Messrs. Rhees & Howell, Howlet Creek, Pa. The suit is brought by some of the stockholders of Rhees & Howel’s flannel works against the estate of young Mr. Rhees for damages done to their interests by new processes of manufacture introduced by him, which processes are said to have led to the disastrous effects above referred to, and in consequence of which their fabrics were rejected from the market and their dividends reduced to nothing.

The establishment of Rhees & Howel was one of the most respectable and wealthy manufactories in the country, and its dividends during at least a generation had been regular and handsome. The business had been managed in chief by the men of the firm, and when, in 1868, old Mr. Rhess died, Howel telegraphed to Europe for his son to come and fill his place. When young Rhees returned — early in 1869 — Howel had also died, and the entire management of the concern devolved upon him and Mr. David Morgans, the intelligent foreman, who had been connected with the business for more than twenty-five years.

Mr. Griffith Rhees was about thirty years old when he returned. He had been five years in Europe, most of the time in the University of Berlin, where he had been pursuing a course of technical science and applied chemistry, with the express object of fitting himself for his prospective duties as a manfacturer.

Mr. Rhees was not a dreamer, but a man of extremely practical views. He never let conjecture override fact in his mind, and when he returned to the superintendency of the Howlet Creek factory his first step in the administration of affairs showed him to be a business man of no ordinary qualities. He called them together and showed them by irresistible figures that the Rhees & Howel mills were losing money. He convinced them that the protective duty of 120 1/2 per cent on flannels, high as it was, did not compensate them for the offset duty of 69 1/2 per cent on fine wool, and the other taxes that burdened their manufacture. The stockholders proposed to suspend operations. This, however, Mr. Rhees opposed, convincing them that by this course they would lose their skilled labor and their old and well-established custom.

“Besides, gentleman,” said he, “I mean to show you that American brains, American machinery and American capital can do more than the same things in any other part of the world.”

One day, returning from a walk, Mr. Rhees called Morgans into his study and unrolled before him a strip of something that was like cloth, nigh the third of an inch thick, gray on one side, greenish on the other, with the texture and something of the touch of felt.

“What’s that?” said Mr. Rhees.

Morgans shook his head. “It might be thick-milled flannel, but it isn’t. I never handled any cloth like that.”

“It’s a vegetable,” said Mr. Rhees.

“It’s a codfervoit plant known as ‘water-flannel,’ and grows in our mill-dams.”

Morgans started. “Cott!” said he, “if we could only get a good crop of that sort of thing on the ponds, we could let the tariff and the taxes go to the devil!”

Mr. Rhees did not reply, but placing a bit of the cloth under a microscope, showed Morgans that it was really a vegetable fungus, made up of myriads of jointed threads woven together symmetrically and firmly, so as to have the texture and simulate to the actual fabric of a cloth made by machinery.

This was still in the early part of 1869, Morgans’ affidavit tells us; and it was only a few days later that Mr. Rhees summoned him again, and submitted to his inspection a piece of red flannel, which Morgans avers was in every respect not less than 25 per cent above the standard quality produced at the mill.

“That’s English,” said Morgans; “I know the feel of it.”

“That’s Howlet Creek and Rhees & Howel’s mill pond!” retorted Mr. Rhees. “That’s made out of the piece of vegetable fibre I showed you the other day,” added he.

“Impossible!” said Morgans.

“I knew that I could make cloth out of it,” added Mr. Rhees, “and I have done it.”

Morgans’ affidavit goes on to recount very circumstantially the processes resorted to by Mr. Rhees to convert the vegetable fabric into a durable cloth, to keep up the strength and continuity of its fibre, and prevent the fungus from undergoing decomposition.

“Now, Morgans,” added Mr. Rhees, “you must keep this matter a secret, for I am going to perform miracles, and we shall have the hands burning us up if it gets out. I mean to dispense, with factory, machinery, and all, I mean to make our mill ponds manufacture this thing for us as fast as we need it, and so cheap that we can sell it, pound for pound and drive even unwashed wool out of the market!”

Morgans looked at his employer, as if he expected to find him turned lunatic. He saw instead a handsome, intelligent face, glowing with fine enthusiasm.

“See here,” said Mr. Rhees, using his microscope, “do you see this? This cloth is simply vegetable fibre and starch. Starch is the most readily organizable of all materials, and if chemical synthesis cannot establish the conditions precedent to the unlimited production of these globules of feculae and their enwrapping fibre, it ought to surrender claims to usefulness. I say this: I already know how to make cheap cloth, and good cloth, out of this fungus, and I will find means to induce these mill ponds of ours to produce the fungus, just when, how, and as much as we want.”

Mr. Rhees was now occupied for more than two years in perfecting and reducing to practice his various and complicated processes. After he had found out how to consummate and regulate the production of the fungus, there was machinery to invent and to be made that would enable them to gather it cheaply, and there were besides a great number of subsidiary experiments to be conducted, so that the inventor’s time was fully occupied. Meanwhile the mill had been steadily working on, doing its three quarter time with satisfaction to all concerned.

Meanwhile, also, there had been put upon the market from the Rhees & Howel mill, slowly, in small lots, and with a careful avoidance of everything like asking attention to it, a new grade of flannel, mostly red in color, thick milled, rather hard to the touch, and with very short nap, but otherwise not peculiar, except that it seemed to be a very fine goods. This flannel had a particular trade mark of its own, and was called the “Rhees fibre.” It was only “for trial,” and at prices averaging 25 per cent below the market standard for similar qualities, but always in small lots and to different purchasers. This good, thus distinctly separated from the common product of the mills the parties who bring the suit claim will be specifically identified as the article whose introduction caused them the damages they allege, and indeed brought on the catastrophe of the Rhees & Howel mills.

Morgans’ says that it was only in October, 1871, that Mr. Rhees had finally completed all his preparations. Even then he was only able to make the final experiment upon a small surface at the upper end of the mill dam, on account of the deficiency of help. It would not yet do to take the hands into the secret. Rhees in fact wanted to get possession of all the stock first, and then turning his factory into a co-operative union, take all hands into business partnership with him at the same time that he shared with them the new secret. The operatives had already suspicions of something, and were only kept from murmurs of dissatisfaction by hints which Rhees threw out of his intentions toward them. In one night, therefore, Rhees and Morgans, using a model of the landing machinery, brought to the shore enough of the fabric to make 200 yards of flannel. This was loaded into country wagons hired for the purpose, delivered at the mill, and stored in an unused room, all under cover of darkness. By the 20th of December Rhees and Morgans, working at odd times, had submitted this to the chemical and dressing processes necessary, had prepared it for market, and on that date, says Morgans, for the first time, a large consignment of the “Rhees fibre” was made to  their New York agents, along with other goods shipped them as usual.

Rhees, following up his plan, had been actively negotiating with the several holders for the purchase of their shares of stock in his mill. On the 17th of April, 1872, at 10 in the morning, Rhees came into the mill office, looking considerably disturbed.

Morgans asked him what was the matter. He replied that his child, an infant less than a year old, was very much complaining. It had seemed to be threatened with croup; but in the night it had had a sudden attack of fever, with a decided crimson eruption, and he had sent for the doctor, fearing it was scarlatina.

“But that is not the chief trouble,” said Rhees; “see this.”

And he opened a medical journal published in Louisville, and pointed Morgans to an article in it on a new disease just diagnosed there. It was styled in the article “Mycolloidal Dermestitus,” was said to be a peculiar eruption, attended with great irritation of the skin, running an uncertain course, complicated with cerebral symptoms, more or less marked, and terminating variously. Cases were mentioned in which the eruptions lasted weeks, and then disappeared as suddenly as it came, others in which the attack was violent and the result as immediately fatal as in malignant erysipelas. The disease was said to be caused by wearing red flannel.

“I don’t believe it, Morgans,” said Mr. Rhees. “But even if it is not so, and such a thing gets abroad, it will ruin our business. If people suspect that there is such a thing as poisonous red flannel in the market, they will decline to buy any flannel.”

Morgans said not a word, but going to a drawer in his desk, procured a scrap book, opened it, and pointed his employer to a long column of newspaper clippings, enumerating cases of sickness and death from wearing red flannel.

“You see, there’s none of ’em older than ’69,” said Morgans.

“Good God, Morgans!” cried Mr. Rhees, “what do you mean?”

“Didn’t we sell a piece of that flannel to Jones & Rhenhardt, in Louisville? I tell you that it’s our flannel — the Rhees fibre — that’s poisoning all these folks.”

“It is not — it cannot be!” cried Mr. Rhees, in great agitation. “Every part of the process, all the articles used in it, are perfectly innocuous.”

“Then it’s the fungus that does it,” persisted Morgans. “I’ve watched these things some time, and I know it’s our flannel.”

Morgans says Mr. Rhees stood like a man thunderstruck. He faltered, staggered, and could not speak. At this instant a servant came running to him from his house, and told him the doctor had come and wanted to see him at once — the baby was very ill.

“Morgans,” said Mr. Rhees, as he went out of the door, making a painful effort ot control his agitation, “telegraph at once to our factors to stop these goods peremptorily, and no matter at what cost.”

Morgans did as he was bidden; and in the course of half an hour Mr. Rhees returned to the office, looking — so the foreman said — like a man sentenced to death.

“Morgans,” said he, “where di the piece of flannel come from I sent for yesterday?”

“It was the Rhees fibre; I thought you wanted it for some of your experiments. Good God, Mr. Rhees! You didn’t put that around your child’s neck, did you?”

“What else!” said the unhappy man, forcing himself to be calm; “and the child is dying, and the doctor pronounces the disease to be — O God! I am punished! I am punished!”

And to Morgan’s great distress Mr. Rhees broke into a great weeping.

At this moment a telegraph boy arrived with a dispatch, which Mr. Rhees read and then handed to Morgans, controlling himself and becoming suddenly calm once more, by an effort which the faithful foreman said was more frightful to witness than his sobs and tears. The message said that the orders arresting the sale of the consignment of the Rhees fibre had come too late. The goods had been sold on very satisfactory terms to another house, which had already reported that they were to be made up into uniforms for General Herrera’s army.

“You see, Morgans,” said Mr. Rhees, “the fire I kindled has gone beyond my own house.”

As he spoke, the doctor came to the door and laid his hand on Mr. Rhees’ shoulder.

“Your child is dead,” said he; “go comfort your wife.”

“I am going — to make reparation to her, and to all,” answered Mr. Rhees, walking out of the office.

After much search his body was found, two days later, in the deepest part of the mill dam. The stockholders suspended operations at the mill at once, attached the property of Rhees, and brought suit as above mentioned. The case will come to trial soon as the messengers who have been despatched for witnesses from General Herrera’a army shall have returned.

The Ohio Democrat (New Philadelphia, Ohio) Apr 5, 1872


Read more online about water-flannel in the following 1844 magazine (Google Books, page 282) at the link:

Title    The eclectic magazine of foreign literature, science, and art
Publisher    Leavitt, Trow, & Co., 1844

Item notes    v. 1
Original from Indiana University
Digitized Feb 3, 2009


The “Poisoned Flannel” story, which we published last week, is styled by the Holmes County Farmer a “skillfully concocted scientific sensation, but people are not required to believe it on our account.” Just so.

The Ohio Democrat (New Philadelphia, Ohio) Apr 12, 1872


I posted this story in the Tragic Tuesday category because  I totally fell for it when I read it in the old newspaper! I then spent about an hour searching the archives for more articles about this “tragedy” and came up completely empty, until I finally found the snippet above which was published in the same paper the following week. I bet the editors had a real good laugh.

Anyway, I do think it’s a good story, even if it isn’t true.

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